DAVID Robinson writes on the detective series that’s really a wise social comedy of morals
The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine
by Alexander McCall Smith
Little, Brown, 240pp, £17.99
IN years to come, when some earnest academic writes a thesis on “Alexander McCall Smith and the subversion of noir” (and I’m sure they will), they’ll use this novel to make their case.
Just look, they’ll say, at how gleefully McCall Smith turns the tropes of noir fiction inside out. It’s there even in the title: a woman walking in, you’ll notice, the sunshine, not hiding in the shadows, or coming on with a seductive wisecrack in a bar, or waiting for the postman to ring twice or generally self-destructing in a whirlpool of drugs and booze and hard-boiled cynicism. Observe too, how cleverly he distances his protagonist, Mma Ramotswe, from all the noir clichés.
There IS a bar in one scene, for example, and a right vice den it is too, but the good lady detective stays deliberately outside in her little white van. There is sex too, although it happens mercifully far off the page, and Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, her second-in-command at the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, deal with its messy moral complications with the same ruthless efficiency that Kim and Aggie used to exhibit, once they’d snapped on their rubber gloves, in Channel 4’s How Clean Is Your House?
And then there’s the bleakness – you know, how the flawed noir detective always has an affair with some dame only to find at the end that she’s using him, and how he concludes that this is pretty much the way the world is? Just pause for a moment, the putative thesis will urge, to examine McCall Smith’s breathtaking revisionism here.
First, Mma Ramotswe is not only morally almost flawless but blissfully married to Mr JLB Matekoni, the nicest man in Bostwana, so there are no affairs. There’s not even a hint of an addiction, unless you’re going to count red bush tea and cake. And far from there being anything wrong with the world, the only problem Mma Ramotswe has to worry about is whether she can trust Mma Makutsi with running the business while she takes a week’s holiday.
In reality, of course, like the preceding 15 novels in McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine owes almost nothing to noir but an awful lot to the rather wise social comedies of Barbara Pym. Like Pym, McCall Smith believes that the small stuff in life matters – that, as Mma Ramotswe observes here, “An act of selfishness, some small unkindness, could seem every bit as grave as a dreadful crime… the size of the secret said nothing about its weight on the soul.”
One example of small unkindness is the child who scratches the paintwork on Mma Ramotswe’s van when she refuses to pay him to mind it for her. Behind that action lies a young life she helps to set back on track with the same moral attentiveness she shows when investigating a scandal about a dead politician. Whatever the case, there are always rules to be followed – and although in theory Mma Ramotswe always bases her investigations on what she’s read in Clovis Andersen’s The Principles of Private Detection, in practice they’re usually also based on her own profound common sense.
Clovis Anderson (a fictitious Midwestern American) is the nearest Mma Ramotswe comes to noir, and that’s not very near at all, as we saw three years ago in The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, when he met Mma Ramotswe in Botswana. More important is her own moral code. Don’t allow things to fester. Don’t get cynical. All meddling must be done tactfully. Gossip may be enjoyed, but only up to a point. Sometimes it is necessary to sit on someone. Above all, the Botswana Rule Number One: Respect Other People (and, of course, the ancestors). I’ve culled all those from this new, defiantly non-noir novel, but they’d probably work very well here too – which is exactly the point.